Thursday, January 28, 2010

Spring Ulmer’s The Age of Virtual Reproduction

Some Beams (Pulley and Cable)

I keep reading one horrifying paragraph:
I have read your prison narrative. I have read, As I hold my pen, my hand is shaking; I have read of your being urinated on, Jumah, of your being made to walk barefoot on barbed wire, forced to breathe chemical odors, stripped of clothes and left naked with no pillow, no mattress, only the cold metal of a cage. I have read of petrol injected into your penis and of the time your lawyer came and you excused yourself, made a noose, and jumped from the sink in the restroom. No one, Jumah, should be shackled to the ground beneath a naked menstruating female guard. No one. How, in the face of this, can I write to you? And of what can I write? Of the color of the sweater I am wearing—pale-green?
That’s out of a harrowing essay call’d “An Atlas of Restraint”—out of Spring Ulmer’s The Age of Virtual Reproduction (Essay Press, 2009). The essay addresses (directly, calmly, tenderly) three individuals by turns: one Zach (“At two, you were diagnosed with autism, and at eleven, you fell in love with a potbellied pig named Sid”); Jumah al-Dossari, a prisoner at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp (“You’ve attempted suicide twelve times and now you’re on another hunger strike”); and Topsy, the Indian elephant of Coney Island whose death by electrocution in 1903 (it’d “killed three men in three years”) gather’d an enormous crowd, “and Thomas Edison caught it all on film.” Restraint, restraints, and—in one horrifying butcher-mouth’d phrase—non-incremental restraint systems (meaning the nylon ropes and belts used to tie a person down into an electric chair): all damnably (and ravagingly) consider’d, in numerous forms. Restraint of—in Zach’s story—“the day Dakota City, Iowa, ruled that your pig, Sid, violated the city’s livestock ordinance and banished him to a barn on the outskirts of town”). Restraint of the Temple Grandin-invent’d squeeze chair—“modeled after cattle chutes which calm animals down by applying pressure to their bodies as they are shuttled to slaughter”—that “hugs her without violating her autistic need to shrink from human touch.” The “restraint chair” of Jumah al-Dossari at Guantánamo where, with “a feeding tube forced up your nose, down your throat, and into your stomach, . . . Officials . . . pump you full of liquid nutrients and laxatives and keep you in the chair until you shit yourself.” (Ulmer recounts a visit to one Tom Hogan, of Denison, Iowa, inventor of the restraint chair used at Guantánamo—“looking like a weight-lifting bench someone’s folded in half.” He says: “A mentally ill person told me it should have padding and be painted blue, so we changed it.”) Restraint of Topsy’s ensemble: “rope-like fasteners” and “copper shoes” (Ulmer recounts, too, some of the “devastating footage in Mr. Death—a documentary about Fred Leuchter, electric chair specialist and Holocaust denier”—whence the Topsy film—who “job, he argues, is to make sure the persons doing the electrocuting don’t also get electrocuted.” Restraint—the biggest of all—of what Ulmer here calls “a state of moral and emotional anesthesia.” (Another essay is call’d “The Age of Numbing.”) It is that—the fear, or recognition, that we, under the pixilated onslaught, or the onslaught of our own endless capacity for mutual slaughter, may’ve breach’d some human empathy barrier—that seems to underpin all of Ulmer’s writing. She records writing letters to Jumah:
Jumah, the reason I’m telling you all this is the same reason I keep writing you letters that keep getting returned, some ripped open, others unread, all of the envelopes stamped refused: because my not writing would imply that writing doesn’t matter, and I cannot stand such a thought. Even if what I write is simply a record of barbarism (as Walter Benjamin maintains there is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism), it is still a record. Ultimately, though, I know the real issue is whether such records are read and responded to. Did you know, Jumah, that when asked for a nonviolent solution to wwii, Mahatma Gandhi proposed that those imprisoned in camps commit suicide to show the others outside what they claimed they couldn’t see? Thereafter, George Orwell stated that such nonviolent forms of protest depend upon a sane society—a society in which people respond to what they see morally.

Spring Ulmer

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

James Rosenquist’s Painting Below Zero

Some Cows

James Rosenquist (out of Painting Below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art):
      I once titled a painting Time Flowers in which the word flowers functioned both as a noun and as a verb. The flowers were colored tenpenny nails arranged in groups of five, the way prisoners mark time on the walls of their cells. The title of Talking, Flower Ideas works the same way. A painting is a kind of time machine. It has to have two almost contradictory qualities. It’s essential that the painting communicate its energy and intensity to the person looking at it instantly, while at the same time it has to have elements that only become apparent after you have looked at the painting for a while.

James Rosenquist, “Time Flowers” (serigraph), 1974
      Frank Stella said something interesting about the split-second nature of art. He said that the baseball player Ted Williams was the quintessential modern artist because of his fast eye—Williams claimed he could see the seams on a baseball as it came over the plate at ninety miles an hour. I want that instant punch when you look at one of my paintings, too—the immediacy of an ad or a billboard—but at the same time I want you to be able to read things in my painting as they slowly rise to the surface. I’m often impressed by seeing something obliquely. That way I won’t get tangled up with its meaning to the point that I forget the very thing that originally enticed me. I’ll take it in in that initial flashing way, and then I’ll take the time to look deeper.
Painter’s way of keeping oneself “just a little stupid” (meaning “fresh, attending”). Hook’d—car radio, scooting across the dying industrial corner of Indiana—by Rosenquist’s gruff affability and easy (self-deflecting) laugh. Check’d out the book. Grew up in the Depression, shiftless (“nomadic”) aviator parents. “The Midwest is a strange place.” “One evening I was sitting on the front porch at sunset with the sun in back of me, and I seemed to see a giant Trojan horse walking across the horizon.” (“Turned out it was the neighbor’s stallion that had gotten loose and, caught against the setting sun, it loomed as a giant that looked four stories high.”) (Recalling—somewhere in Pynchon, the mountain in the Berkshires where one, catching the final green sliver of sundown, throws a shadow all the way into Connecticut.) Or: “In 1938, when we were living in Minnesota, a meteor landed on a neighbor’s house a few miles away and struck a woman on her hip while she was in bed—and she lived.” Or, story of a cousin who’d “been in the battalion that liberated Buchenwald”: “he told me they had used one room there as a latrine. He said he mistook a moonbeam for a piece of toilet paper on the latrine floor and tired to pick it up. ‘Damn, have you ever tried to wipe your ass with a moonbeam?’ I later made a print based on this image titled Moon Beam Mistaken for the News.

James Rosenquist, “Moon Beam Mistaken for the News,” 1979
Rosenquist train’d as a billboard painter. (“being made to paint big advertisements in Times Square. If it didn’t look good, you’d get fired in two seconds flat. One time I was painting a billboard for the movie The Defiant Ones, in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are two prisoners, a white guy and a black guy, escaping from jail. I remember the workmen carrying big images of the movie billboard out of the shop. Tony Curt and Sidney Poitier were in chains, they were grabbing each other’s chains so they could run, but it looked like they were grabbing each other’s balls. So the boss says, ‘We can’t let that go up like that with those two guys grabbin’ each other’s dicks! Rosenquist! Change that!’”) Aesthetics roots (memory) in collage:
      While we were living in Ohio, my mother took me at a museum in Dayton, where I first encountered the enigma of collage, something I would spend my life trying to unravel. There, all on the same wall, was a painting, a shrunken head, and a little flower: three completely different things that seemed to have nothing to do with one another.
      People always mention Kurt Schwitters when they think of collage, but it goes much further back than that, way back to the Japanese tea ceremony. When you look at a collage by Schwitters, with disparate things stuck side by side and laid on top of each other—a newspaper, a train ticket, paper money, a torn piece of blue paper, a fashion illustration, an envelope with a stamp on it—you involuntarily make connections. With collage you are free to create your own narrative. That and an element of mystery is what originally attracted me to the process.
Collage as a variable ceremony of placement.

James Rosenquist, “Terrarium,” 1978
“What’s going on in Terrarium is a lot more subtle and elusive. The bottles containing the tomato and the woman’s face allude to an ancient Japanese paradox. Your favorite pet climbs into your antique vase and he starts growing in there without your noticing it. All of a sudden, you realize what’s happened. What do you do? Break the vase and save your pet? Or . . .? It’s an unanswerable riddle. The face in a bottle is like your love in a jar . . . what do you do with it? The tomato probably represents the woman, and you have to smash the bottle to keep the tomato or just let the tomato rot. You take your favorite thing and you strangle it. The woman-in-the-bottle riddle. So, it’s a pun, a visual koan with a twist.”

James Rosenquist, “The Light That Won’t Fail I,” 1961

James Rosenquist, “White Bread,” 1964

James Rosenquist, “Dog Descending a Staircase,” 1979

James Rosenquist, “Coup d’œil—Speed of Light,” 2001

Bob Adelman, “James Rosenquist Examining His Work Through a Reductive Lens,” 1980

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Steve Carey’s Selected Poems

A Wall

Edit’d with a preface by Edmund Berrigan and select’d for printing by Anselm Berrigan, The Selected Poems of Steve Carey (Subpress, 2009) arrives with its lineage unconceal’d, flaunt’d, rather, heart-on-its-sleeve-style, with pieces for the likes of Philip Whalen, Alice Notley (who publish’d a ferociously moving memoir of Carey—call’d “Steve”—in the 2005 Coming After: Essays on Poetry), Bill Berkson, and Ted Berrigan. Carey died in 1989, aged 43, of a heart attack: in roughly two decades, he publish’d seven books, Smith Going Backward (Cranium Press, 1968), through Gentle Subsidy (Big Sky, 1975) and The California Papers (United Artists, 1981) to 20 Poems (Unimproved Editions, 1987), Alice Notley’s seemingly completely fugitive press-of-the-moment. Edmund Berrigan, in the preface: “Finding a copy of any of Steve Carey’s seven books these days amounts to finding and ransacking the book collection of one of his friends.” With Keith Abbott, Carey edit’d the magazine Blue Suede Shoes.

Alice Notley’s remarks about Steve Carey—anecdotal, defiantly “unliterary” (she recalls Ted Berrigan chiding Carey’s “esthetic purity” a little with the line “Absolute quality tells absolutely nothing”) and unabashedly partial (she notes how she and Carey “quickly consented to sibling rivalry being born a month apart in the same year 1945”) and partisan—arrive by degrees at a terrifyingly forthright crescendo and cri de cœur damning life in the impeccably-policed confines of Poetryville, U.S.A. Pertinent, unremediably pertinent. Notley:
I write, in this essay, of the relation of poetry and life, the poet’s life: they go together and echo each other, sometimes one has depth when the other hasn’t (and vice versa). Steve (to continue in the present tense) lays his life on the line for and in his poetry, in order to write it properly. You have to give it something, everything actually, and I don’t know what the it is in that clause, which it is, poetry or life. Poetry isn’t a career, it’s much more exacting than that part of it. Poets are routinely and shamefully used by their society to get a culture, to have a culture at all; Steve is clearly a culture-maker and the product of society’s use of him. Abuse of his sensitivity. He has been hurt in his youth and the result is rampant poetry and also fear and instability; the more hurt you are, the more poetic you are, the less likely you’ll be conformist enough, or have enough professional stamina, to get the circumscribed recognition a “famous” poet gets. That’s the cliché, the cliché is true. If poetry isn’t, as the theory people say, or shouldn’t be about manufacturing a product, then poets such as Steve are the ones who should be given more attention. They aren’t, and not by the theorists. You can’t study him if you can’t easily get his books (products); if he doesn’t hang with a crowd of self-advertisers (theorists) telling you what his works mean and that he’s the only one; if his life is embarrassing or something, if it works according to its own (painful) rules. If you can’t separate the product from the producer, the poet from the life. I love Steve so I’m not impartial or detached or whatever that word; I don’t want to be that word; I don’t want to be a scientist about poetry—and I’m not just talking about my friend. I’m talking about poetry. It isn’t detachable. It’s mixed in with everything, even when it isn’t obviously being written; it’s consuming and if you’re a poet and you aren’t somewhat ravaged from that, there’s probably something wrong with your poetry.
A white-hot flame capable of obliterating anybody’s self-satisfy’d constructivist moment, that machine’d erector set model.

Carey’s pieces in the Selected Poems seem of two (or three) identifiable sorts. There’s a number of bravura pieces that single-mindedly “do up” a (likely) pre-conceived (and extreme) idea—the name-calling of “The Complaint: What Are You, Some Kind Of” (“Acturial plight Nostradamus Devil Bat / Overzealous mighty-winged flabbergast / Wholesale heathen plot worry wort / Sci-fi lexicon formenter hassle-free / Quipster of the ring . . . / Bahama-bound, neo-passé poontang, / Lunge-monger, thrust-hustler, quasi-objectionable / Quasi-aged quasi-rookie, one of the boys and girls . . .”); the humorous unending toodaloos of “Goodbye Forever” (“Shit, I’m busting out of this mill! / Yes, I am! Getting out of this burg! / Leaving! Quitting the place! Splitting! / Making my beat! Making tracks! Hauling out! . . . Prominent loss! / Mr. Tootle-oo! Go-go bozo! I’ll be shoving off!” &c.)—through a couple of rollicking pages; the collect’d late-night movie (Carey the son of Harry Carey, Jr.) lingo of “Calling S. J. Perelman” (“Begging your pardon, ma’am, and meaning no harm by it I’m sure / But have you with all respect lost your mind? / No! No police! You promised! Speak up when you talk to me boy . . . / Nothing to be afraid of here. I see it, / But I don’t believe it! Your honor, I object, counsel / for the defense is attempting to turn this courtroom / into a three-ring circus. I own everything in this town / worth owning but the post office and the phone company / and I’m working on that. . .”) The majority of the pieces, though—including the hedg’d “(or three)”—those being a couple of (only partially reprint’d here) longer poems that work to record the skitterish quotidiana in (mostly) extreme open field, pieces like “AP” (Notley recalls how Carey’d “constantly inform” Ted Berrigan how, although “AP is ‘like’ [Berrigan’s] Tambourine Life and written after Tambourine Life, [it] was composed without his knowing about Tambourine Life.”), “The California Papers,” and “Rarity Planes”—the majority of Carey’s pieces audaciously explore the lyric, with sometimes mouth-droppingly terrific result. Here’s a piece I find astonishing—one of the final poems in the book (I would’ve liked to see dates of composition and / or publication append’d or noted—it’s difficult (impossible) to determine any sense of Carey’s trajectory—if such exists). Carey:

She holds the bird a minute to her lips
Before returning it, weary, home:
Something signal and fine
With more than a bit of the randier ads
And hence, as I dreamed it, a sense of people
Having died in the name of the sentiment
They contained. We have forfeit
The requirement of our consent.
We begin to hear more than we’d wished.
Now, again, she is damned and appropriate.
“Bitchin’ kamikazee ingenue” is right
(singing, “Do wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do”)
Like the guys who followed the birds south
Laying down a railroad along their path—
Stunts recalling amphetamines’ exacting perfidy
(Now grown sweet) or even, more recently,
Engaged in locating subatomic deities,
Perhaps merely standing, greatly, by.
From a walk to a halt to a walk—
What it amounts to. And so
Back out into the customary air
Turning her face to her sources.
The simple effortless beauty of “From a walk to a halt to a walk— / What it amounts to” (a poetic of sorts)—thrills me. As does the seemingly lackadaisical sound underpinnings of “And hence, as I dreamed it, a sense of people / Having died in the name of the sentiment / They contained. We have forfeit / The requirement of our consent.” All that quasi-clipped ent-ing and eit-ing coming off the looser hence and sense: a kind of British stiff-upper-lipping at those deaths (all death). (Carey’s book is nigh-brimming with death: or is that the “effect” of knowing a writer to’ve gone off too soon? There’s (in “Staggerlee”): “Death, for instance, in its various proof, / surprised home at the theory, although / ‘the rest departed’ was how it went / in some perimeters.” There’s (in “The Old Enthusiast”) the shuddery-lovely line by its lonesome, “The constantly new darks”—hard on the heels of “possibly summoned by surprise in a similar dying / sometime that day” and (some ways along) “You are the journal of yourself—dying—.” There’s (in another movie mélange call’d “Black and White”): “Where is he? Last we heard one of the girls here got / a postcard from Singapore. It would / be just like that guy to die at a time like / this.”

My prefer’d Carey pieces (like “Poem”) seem oddly inexplicable, self-contain’d, absolutely inimitable (though I think of Hart Crane, some of whose short lyrics instill the same sense of casual ineffability in me). Say, (perhaps), “merely standing, greatly, by.” They (the pieces) often appear to stutter a little, comma-rid (à la Olson), not exactly worrisomely start-and-stop, just (self-collect’dly) pausing. See, say, (perhaps), something like (in “Drysdale and Mantle, Whitey Ford and To You”): “That man’s joy, that woman’s joy / comes to us / not so much in similar words / —quote or coincidence— / but I think in lethal duet / vowel train, crossword puzzle whim / —a flick of the scat-capable wig // The man I am thinking of / is—good God—hereabouts // and this is the Last Call he heard / from the day he was born—O Ted!” So that one “arrives” with that final lyrical outburst containing all the unjettison’d joy, humor, and loss and bereavement, a simultaneity. One more:
Thin Air

Convinced, I verb the modern stop,
I relinquish heritage tidal signs
For those more complete at command

A splendid confusion pre-empts
All I make:
The will and the wish—I don’t know!
I am so happy neglecting
The station to decide!

Outside the heat conspires to reside,
And by that alone all movement
Must have noise. My voice
In bickering incidents—
All contrary to direction, all
Some other rote.

Motion in heat, on a grass now lawn
And dying, could well be
Impossible from here. . . .

I am in spite of my life.
I sort and die. I die talking.
That “all movement / Must have noise” and acceptance of how “A splendid confusion pre-empts / All I make” works to “make sense” (if need’d) of “verbing” “the modern stop”: it somehow reminds me of O’Hara’s something or other, “Poem (Khrushchev is coming on the right day!)” (maybe), with its scheherazade of motility, its dervish swirl of activity, just keeping going, “I am foolish enough always to find it in wind.”

The Selected Poems of Steve Carey
(Artwork by Jonathan Allen)

Jonathan Allen, “Away We Go,” 2009

Jonathan Allen, “All Over,” 2009

Jonathan Allen, “Across the East River,” 2008

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pound Notes

Some Frames

Pound c. July 1909 in an eight-page scrawl, a “tirade . . . to be read purely for style,” re: the “Epic. of the West”:
      When business begets a religion of ‘Chivalry in affairs of money, & when 3% per annum is metamorhorized into the clult of an ideal beauty.’ & when america can produce any figure as suited to the epic as is Don Quixote, and when the would be litterati cease from turning anything that might in 500 years develop into a tradition, into copy at $4 per. col. within four hours of its occurrence
          then there may begin to be the possibility of an american epic.
      An epic in the real sense is the speech of a nation thru the mouth of one man.

      Whitman let america speak through him.—The result is interesting as ethnology.

      Just at present I can see america producing a Jonah, or a lamenting Jherimiah.

      But the american who has any suspicion that he may write poetry, will walk very much alone, with his eyes on the beauty of the past of the old world, or on the glory of a spiritual kingdom, or on some earthly new Jerusalem—which might as well be upon Mr Shackletons antarctic ice fields as in Omaha for all the West has to do with it.—Canada, Australia, New Zeland, South Africa, set your hypothetical scene where you like.
          Epic. of the West—it is [as] if I asked someone to write my biography—it is more as if I had asked them to do it 12 years ago.

      It is truly American—, a promoters scheme, it is stock & mortgages on a projected line of R.R.,

      which last sentence is the only one in the language of my native land.— . . .
Is William Gaddis’s J R an epic? Is Silliman’s The Alphabet “the speech of a nation thru the mouth of one man”? (Or is it “a promoters scheme”? What’s the count of refs to “stock & mortgages” therein?) Rambuncts of snooze-thinking in the warmish air. One Friday Vibe-journey into Detroit (Hilary Hahn), the usual dogged trajectory to Chi-town (and back) sopped up the weekend: no closer am I to the new regime. Reading “at” the Pound biography encore. Took, too, by lines Pound wrote in a letter to Dorothy Shakespear—the context is unclear, though Moody relates it to Pound’s “utmost detachment” vis-à-vis the seemingly terminal unsettledness of the two’s relationship:
I wonder if we can not look at the beginning of things as a sort of divine phantasmagoria or vision or what you will and the ‘vagueness’ etc as a sort of smoke—an incident in the much more difficult process of drawing down the light, of embodying it, of building it into the stiffer materia of actualities. The whole thing a process of art, of the more difficult art in which we are half media and half creators.
Isn’t there a whiff of Keats to that? Is it the “half media and half creators” that recalls Keats’s dubbing of Coleridge’s “being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge” in the “several things dovetailing” of Keats’s famous 1818 letter?
. . . several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.
If Williams claim’d Pound “Never knew a thing about Shakespeare except the “pure beauty” of a few lines,” I doubt Pound’d any use for Keats. I note no reference to Keats in the Pound / Williams Selected Letters and two scant mentions in the D. D. Paige-edited The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, one referring to collector / patron John Quinn mock-proposing “medals given to John Keats for orthography” and the other, in sending “L’Homme Moyen Sensuel” to H. L. Mencken for publication, suggesting he “boom it as the satire, ‘best since Byron.’ New York is accustomed to a new Keats and a new Shelley once a fortnight and one might vary the note.” (And, regarding New York: one might, indeed.)

Ezra Pound, c. 1970
(Photograph by David Lees)

Friday, January 22, 2010

“It continues it hardly closes at all . . .”


Skunk in the morning breeze. Shot in through the crow-infest’d pre-dawn (Ford Madox Ford saying how Pound’d read a thing by Arnaut Daniel: “The only part of that albade that you would understand would be the refrain: ‘Ah me, the darn, the darn it comes toe sune’”—Ford memory-wanking “Ah God! Ah God! That dawn should come so soon!” out of P.’s “Alba Innominata.”) Bicycling through cold after a spell of not. (Reading, again, with desultory impulse set to high, the newish Moody biography of Pound. Thinking of how Moody posits Ford as “complement and corrective of Yeats” (“even songs for the psaltery needed to have a prose ground under them”—that interminable war between earth-pull’d speech and the soaring heavenly illimitables, some’d say gaseousness, of the writ)—and quotes P.’s Pisan Cantos retrospect:
                  Ford’s conversation was better,
consisting in res non verba,
            despite William’s anecdotes, in that Fordie
      never dented an idea for a phrase’s sake
and had more humanitas
“Never dented an idea for a phrase’s sake”—meaning, anti-rhetorical, le mot juste no slovenly impressionist excess, no “flight,” no—as Hugh Kenner might’ve had it (quoting Bouvard et Pécuchet: “—Nous ferons tout ce qui nous plaira! nous laisserons pousser notre barbe!”)—“beard-growing.” P. put it:
It is he [Ford] who has insisted, in the face of a still Victorian press, upon the importance of good writing as opposed to the opalescent word, the rhetorical tradition. Stendhal had said, and Flaubert, de Maupassant and Turgenev had proved, that “prose was the higher art”—at least their prose.
In “Ford Madox (Hueffer) Ford: Obit” Pound recalls how Ford “held that French clarity and simplicity in the writing of English verse and prose were of immense importance as in contrast to the use of a stilted traditional dialect, a “language of verse” unused in the actual talk of the people . . . for the expression of reality and emotion.” (Leading to the repeat’d famous incident of Ford’s floor-rolling hystericks at Pound’s decidedly “literary” effusions in Canzoni:
And he felt the errors of contemporary style to the point of rolling (physically, and if you look at it as a mere superficial snob, ridiculously) on the floor of his temporary quarters in Giessen, when my third volume displayed me trapped, fly-papered, gummed and strapped down in a jejune provincial effort to learn, mehercule, the stilted language that then passed for “good English.” . . . And that roll saved me at least two years, perhaps more. It sent me back to my own proper effort, namely toward using the living tongue (with younger men after me), though none of us has found a more natural language than Ford did.
Which puts one where? Here in the slog-color’d sun of mid-winter, wondering where the music’s going (meaning: in our “era”). No era’s flab-rhetoric matches that of any other era’s: just core-sample a single word, say, “torque” of a decade or so back. Rampantly rhetorical and imprecise: equivalent to a bushy beard-and-moustache stick-on item. How’d we get to “I HATE SPEECH”? Is Language writing “literary”? Is post-Language writing / “hybridity” the equivalent of “Georgian poetry”—with its malign’d volumes of the slack, the manner’d, the accessible? “I” don’t “know.”

Moving the desultory knob up a notch. Sneaking in something out of Olson’s Poetry and Truth under cover of le mot juste, what Olson might’ve call’d “the whole shot, shoot.” That line that Olson plucks out of—hell, who knows, Avicenna? Confucius? “the word . . . in Chinese is that word which I would like to avoid mentioning, but it rhymes with the man . . . to whom that is attributed”? (Olson’s verbiage’d up monkey-shines allow the veriest plethora of “points of purchase”—often equal to none.) Is le mot juste traceable in what Olson calls “Avicenna’s queer, short whatever it is”? Olson:
I said I wanted to talk about the orb, the urb, the image, and the anima mundi, and that it was all to be done under this apothegm or epigram, epigraph. . . . “That which exists through itself . . . That which exists through itself, is what is called meaning.” Too much! I mean it’s too much for me to stand here and just have that. And that is what I have to offer. And that’s what I think there is to offer, and I don’t think anything in this world moves it a jot, except as we do, or become such. “That which exists through itself is what is called meaning.” And even that word meaning is, I think, very—I’m reading from a translation of the Chinese . . . the word, of course, in Chinese is that word which I would like to avoid mentioning, but it rhymes with the man who also, to whom that is attributed. And we have that word in our language as ‘how,’ if you get my string of rhymes.
I don’t. Nevertheless, there’s an uneasy pleasure in observing the uncoiling of Olson’s tetch’d-earnest fretting:
And in my stubborn ruse way, I would like to read it again, so that we can summarize, hopefully, the week. It has the title, “*Added to making a Republic in gloom on Watchhouse Point”—which is simply where I live, it’s called such, it’s part of Fort Point, Fort Square, Gloucester, Massachusetts:
an actual earth of value to
construct one, from rhythm to
image, and image is knowing, and
knowing, Confucius says, brings one
to the goal: nothing is possible without
doing it. It is where the test lies, malgre
all the thought and all the pell-mell of
proposing it. Or thinking it out or living it
ahead of time.
—and it has that margin, “Reading about my world, March 6th, 1968.”
      Now, it wasn’t Confucius, of course, that—right? It wasn’t, as you, if you—I mean ‘how’ does not rhyme with ‘Confucius.’ I mean, there’s—I didn’t even figure this out that night. I thought I’d read this whole damn thing to you and come up like a living exegesis and make it work so that you understood every word. It’s only about 29 pages this, and it’s really impeccable. It’s more like immaculate. And completely penetrable. Completely penetrable to your mind, to your life, to your thought, to your feelings—and I think only those things will actually produce results, result. That’s why I have pressed you, or harried you, harried you so hard, I think—is that there isn’t any way out of that. I think that that statement, that almost, apparently, a truism—as much as Confucius says, “nothing is possible without doing it”—there isn’t any way out of that, it’s like a—no matter what we may think—a pliers of typology, or not of typology, but of what I’m saying is the blow upon the world.
Blow is right. Olson veers off into a butchering of Williams’s “The stain of love / Is upon the world” (Olson: “‘Love is a stain upon the world.’ Or ‘is the stain,’ is it not?—‘is the stain upon the world.’ Any of you correct me in that, or confirm me on that? William Carlos Williams, ‘Love is the stain upon the world’—I think he opens a poem or something with.”) One moves and keeps moving, elbow cock’d, fist clutching the pencil stub. O’Hara (“Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul”): “. . . it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night / wondering whether you are any good or not / and the only decision you can make is that you did it . . . the only thing to do is simply continue / is that simple / yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do / can you do it / yes, you can because it is the only thing to do / blue light over the Bois de Boulogne it continues / the Seine continues / the Louvre stays open it continues it hardly closes at all. . .”

Charles Olson, c. 1962

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Extraneous (“Dropped of Its Own Weight”)

Some Weeds

Another morning with nothing gain’d by its night. Benign as a hayseed. The door-savvy dog unloosing its one sharp bark out back. Williams, in the early prose tantrum he label’d The Great American Novel (1923) with its longing for the untether’d word (“Everything had been removed that other men had tied to the words to secure them to themselves. Clean, clean he had taken each word and made it new for himself—so that at last it was new, free from the world . . .” and “The word is the thing. If it is smeared with colors from right and left what can it amount to?”) and its insistence that the one writerly aim be that of destroying “literature” (defined: “Permanence. A great army with its tail in antiquity”):
My invention this time, my dear, is that literature is a pure matter of words. The moon making a false star of the weather vane on the steeple makes also a word. You do not know the fine hairs on a hickory leaf? Try one in the woods some time. You will grasp at once what I mean.
(I love that: what is the word for that “false star”?) One thing: how Williams’s course differs with Charles Olson’s later (out of the piece, “These Days,” in Archaeologist of Morning) insistence that it is exactly the smeary “colors”—that seemingly sempiternal cling of “mere” “use”—it is most necessary to retain:
whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

              just to make clear
              where they came from
Notwithstanding Olson’s own report’d breach of decorum at the strait-jacketing vestiges of “literature” (at a reading at Brandeis) where he, petulant child, harangue’d the audience with: “You people are so literate I don’t want to read to you anymore.” And: “It’s very crucial today to be sure that you stay illiterate simply because literacy is wholly dangerous, so dangerous that I’m involved every time I read poetry, in the fact that I’m reading to people who are literate and they are not hearing. They may be listening with all their minds, but they don’t hear.” (Rather like A. R. Ammons saying how a writer ought to keep himself “just a little bit stupid.”) (Reminiscent, too, of Olson’s own rejecting—by shouting—of “those old essentials (love, etc)” in “The Escaped Cock”:
      Love, as they have it, is as dead as peace, as war is. There is one requirement, only one requirement, anywhere (and what’s so different about it, actually, from what the predecessors made so much of, with that word of theirs, that word amor plus how-they-figured-it-ought-to-behave)—the clue: open, stay OPEN, hear it, anything, really HEAR it. And you are IN.
      You are all, all of you, so glib about what is human, so goddamn glib. Take a look. Just open your eyes, as he did, the Man who died:
      1: the day of my interference is done
      2: compulsion, no good; the recoil kills the advance
      3: nothing is so marvelous as to be done alone in the phenomenal world which is raging and yet apart
“The Man Who Died” being a story by Lawrence wherein—at one point—Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “the day of my interference is done,” and, later, to himself, “The recoil kills the advance. Now is my time to be alone.”)

And nary a thing gain’d by morning’s own disrupt’d and dogged advance. I keep pondering the famous Keats of “I will cut all this”—seemingly just another argument for the immaterial word—the plain-speech incognito spiel—though isn’t Keats surprisingly “literature”-wary and dismissive of its “Pricks,” too?
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, “admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose!” Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this. Each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state, & knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions & has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: the antients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them.—I will cut all this—I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular—Why should we be of the tribe of Manasseh when we can wander with Esau? why should we kick against the Pricks, when we can walk on Roses? Why should we be owls, when we can be Eagles? . . . I don't mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teazed with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.
Not, again, what I’d intend’d, if intent is a ballooning insobriety hot-footing it through some citational morass, outrunning the lava coming off some solitary volcano’s blowhole, or trying to “get up” one’s own “head” of steam. Reading Williams’s A Novelette last night, the fierce jottings of Williams on the run amidst the 1929 influenza epidemic—to Zukofsky—“While tearing around tending the sick I’ve composed a Novelette in praise of my wife whom I have gotten to know again because of being thrown into her arms and she into mine by the recent epidemic—though not by the illness of either of us, quite the contrary.” The repeat’d dismissal of “the extraneous” (“everything that is not seen in detail”—“In the seriousness of the moment—not even the serious but the single necessity—the extraneous dropped of its own weight”—“stress pares off the inanity by force of speed and a sharpness, a closeness of observation, of attention comes through”) and the general, oh the general:
      Language is in its January. How shall I say it? The surrealists are French. It appears to be to them to knock off every accretion from the stones of composition. To them it is a way to realize the classical excellence of language, so that it becomes writing again, and not an adjunct to science, philosophy and religion—is to make the words into sentences that will have a fantastic reality which is false.
      By this the falseness of the piecemeal (when language is subservient to the sale of old clothes and ideas and the formulas for the synthetic manufacture of rubber) is made apparent and the triumphant of an old category that will liberate all ands and thes is . . .
And: “literature is and must be constantly in revolution and reborn . . . exactly that is the only classic . . . the aberrant is the classic.” So, O’Hara, doing a Williams (“Memorial Day 1950”): “Picasso made me tough and quick, and the world; / just as in a minute plane trees are knocked down / outside my window by a crew of creators . . . Poetry is as useful as a machine! / Look at my room. / Guitar strings hold up pictures. I don’t need / a piano to sing, and naming things is only the intention / to make things . . .”

Okay, a botch. Errors and wrecks. “And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere.” Demijohn, carboy. End of my own execrable ditty. “The day of my interference is done.” L’écriture, c’est comme la mayonnaise: elle tourne quand elle le veut. “Instead of ant wort I saw brat guts.”

William Carlos Williams, c. 1921

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Williams and Beauty


William Carlos Williams “thinking of Pound again” in a letter to Louis Zukofsky (February 3, 1943):
A translator primarily, not at all original—full of verbal felicities, one of the world’s outstanding word-men. Could sling a romantic cadence better than those he followed. Never knew a thing about Shakespeare except the “pure beauty” of a few lines. Never had the vaguest sense of what made S. go and wouldn’t have accepted it if he had known. In spite of which he’s a genius of the first water. His Seafarer, the translations from the Provençal, even from the German; the long early Canto translated from a Latin version of the Greek—superb work.
      And there’s where we stick. “Beauty” to Pound is a very narrow thing, a cult and his words are the carefully selected words of a slender hand pointing minute points in a field of interest.
And Marianne Moore, reviewing Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos (“the epic of the farings of a literary mind”) in Poetry in 1931 (reprint’d in Predilections):
The book is concerned with beauty. . . . “Great poets,” Mr. Pound says, “seldom make bricks without straw. They pile up all the excellences they can beg, borrow, or steal from their predecessors and contemporaries, and then set their own inimitable light atop the mountain.” Of the Cantos, then, what is the master-quality? Scholastically, it is “concentrating the past on the present,” as T. S. Eliot says; rhetorically, it is certitude; musically, it is range with an unerring ear.
And—asking “are there no flaws? Does every passage in this symphony ‘relieve, refresh, revive the mind of the reader—at reasonable intervals—with some form of ecstasy, by some splendour of thought, some presentation of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase’?” [Moore is quoting out of Pound’s own admonishing (“Good art never bores one”) in the “Præfatio ad Lectorem Electum” of The Spirit of Romance]—Moore points to Williams’s own recent review of the volume:
The “words affect modernity,” says William Carlos Williams, “with too much violence (at times)—a straining after slang effects . . . You cannot easily switch from Orteum to Peoria without violence (to the language). These images too greatly infest the Cantos.”
Which—finding odd—I look’d up the ellipsis. The argument, as Williams is making it, is concern’d not with the violent “infest” of the language of “Peoria”; it’s concern’d with “the principal move in imaginative writing today—that away from the word as a symbol toward the word as reality.” Williams:
1) His words affect modernity with too much violence (at times)—a straining after slang effects, engendered by their effort to escape that which is their instinctive quality, a taking character from classic similes and modes. You cannot easily switch from Orteum to Peoria without violence (to the language). These images too greatly infest the Cantos, the words cannot escape being colored by them: 2) so too the form of the phrase—it affects a modern turn but is really bent to a classical beauty of image, so that in effect it often (though not always) mars the normal accent of speech. But not always: sometimes it is superbly done and Pound is always trying to overcome the difficulty.
(Pound’s twice-quoting of Aubrey Beardsley’s “beauty is difficult” in The Cantos ought, henceforth, be shimmed-up with Williams’s counsel and reproof. If Moore manages a kind of bastardizing of Williams (to suit what I hate to say is a finicky comport—though she does write, with superb finick, “Unprudery is overemphasized”), I do like Moore’s sense of Pound’s “older-fashioned” view of women:
T. S. Eliot suspects Ezra Pound’s philosophy of being antiquated. William Carlos Williams finds his “versification still patterned after classic metres”; and, apropos of “feminolatry,” is not the view of woman expressed by the Cantos older-fashioned than that of Siam and Abyssinia? knowledge of the femaleness of chaos, of the octopus, of Our mulberry leaf, woman, appertaining more to Turkey than to a Roger Ascham?
I find the Roger Ascham remark mystifying—Ascham being he who wrote Toxophilus (“Lover of the Bow”), the first book (1545) on archery in English, a long-bow-happy professor of Greek and theorist of “the right order of teaching.” Ascham did, like Dante, tuck verily into the vernacular, noting—of the Latin-titled Toxophilusy—that he’d “written this Englishe matter in the Englishe tongue for Englishe men.” Moore is, évidemment, referring to Pound’s Canto XXIX:
                    . . . the second, the female
Is an element, the female
Is a chaos
An octopus
A biological process
                        and we seek to fulfill . . .
TAN AOIDAN, our desire, drift . . .
                        Ailas e que’m fau miey huelh
                        Quar no vezon so qu’ieu vuelh.
Our mulberry leaf, woman, TAN AOIDAN,
“Nel ventre tuo, o nella mente mia,
“Yes, Milady, precisely, if you wd.
have anything properly made.”
Which isn’t at all what I’d intend’d—scrabbling in the unlit continuum again this morning—my fetid thinking moiety caught betwixt lurch and slumber. I’d intend’d to grapple with Williams’s remark (to Zukofsky) earlier in the letter about “plowing different fields”:
      If anything happened between us “years ago” for my part it was, if I remember anything at all—it was that I began to feel restless at your critical position, as I used to feel with Pound at times when he would press me too hard. I wanted to break away (probably from something inside myself) and felt, perhaps, that you represented certain critical restraints that acted as a check upon me. There is a certain meticulousness about your position that I respect, in you, but which doesn’t agree with my particular kind of irritability after the first ten years. I wanted to get off on the loose and see what a different sort of treatment would do for me. Something like that.
Williams’s propensity, routinely, to throw the whole thing over, to make some room for something different. Impatience with Zukofsky’s (excellently put) “certain meticulousness”—akin to Pound’s “beauty.” For Williams: beauty is nothing more than “what in a single object resolves our complex feelings of propriety.” Out of “Introduction to The Wedge” (1944):
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matters like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character. In a poem this movement is distinguished in each case by the character of the speech from which it arises. Therefore each speech having its own character the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form. The effect is beauty, what in a single object resolves our complex feelings of propriety. One doesn’t seek beauty. All that an artist or a Sperry can do is to drive toward his purpose, in the nature of his materials; not take gold where Babbitt metal is called for; to make: make clear the complexity of his perceptions in the medium given to him by inheritance, chance, accident or whatever it may be to work with according to his talents and the will that drives them.
“Sperry”: manufacturers of aircraft navigation equipment (the Sperry Gyroscope and the Sperry Radio Direction Finder) along with WWII-boost’d devices like analog computer-control’d bomb sights, and airborne radar systems. Oddly enough, Sperry engineers invent’d, too, the ball turret gun.

William Carlos Williams, c. 1944

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

“Crazy Unreason”

A Tree (With Crosses)
That the writing (every writing) merely awaits its unveiling, its dig archeologickal. Coleridge’s stray remark (in the Notebooks): “Unmask the goblin Verse that frights the Page.” And follow’d directly by the odd couplet:
Stuft, swoln, ungirt
With grim, stiff iron verses jagg’d with Points
As if some tender brushwork in the millennial sand, some dainty tapping of the rock pick and easy leveraging with the pry bar might out the boney carcass perfectly preserved. In my peregrinchings amongst the toss’d up Mooresqueries, I tumble into the 1964 Festschrift for Marianne Moore’s Seventy Seventh Birthday, “by various hands,” edit’d by Tambimuttu (being one Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu, Tamil poet and founder of Poetry London—later Poetry London-New York—call’d by Ben Sonnenberg a “brown-skinned, longhaired . . . bohemian, verbose and skinny.”) And find Marguerite Young’s lovely recollect of “An Afternoon with Marianne Moore (1946)”:
      She is one of the poets who have done the most to preserve the English language as a way of new, intoxicating speech, but she has asked me not to say that her work is wonderful. Her work, she says, is a congeries of errors—and I remember that, in one of her poems, she speaks of “life’s faulty excellence,” for which reason I will accept her definition of her art. Life, too, I will agree, is a congeries of errors, is nothing perfect. A great value of her poetry is that it takes us very close to our prime sensational experience which we are likely to gloss over with generalities. She gets us back to the fluctuation of the particular.
      Marianne Moore is a woman with a narrow head and pale blue eyes which seem to gather all the light into them. She is so unfashionable that she seems extremely fashionable. She speaks in quick, enigmatic sentences which strip away the flesh of thought and leave the bones bare and shining, so that suddenly you feel that you are seeing into the secret heart of things. You are mistaken, however, for soon you realize a further complexity—there is no secret heart, no simple solution but another problem, fastidious and strange. This is the atmosphere of her speech as of her poetry, which seems only the organization of her speech—the preservative of many fleeting moments.
And, talking of Moore’s mother’s symbiotic critical acumen (“they do not believe in using the large, loose words which mean nothing”):
      Their most common speech, in which they transact the business of daily prosaic life, is as imagistic as if it had been plucked from a poem, a flight of the imagination. Not long ago, they both had colds and were afraid of infecting other people—until Mrs. Moore said, “Let us have done with the umbrella of our contagion.” Then there was the occasion when Marianne Moore found, in a box of strawberries, a flat, green, disc-shaped strawberry with its seeds sticking out. It was almost all seeds and no strawberry. “Here’s a strawberry that’s had quite a struggle,” she said—and wrote one of her most beautiful poems with that image in mind.
The poem is “Nevertheless” (version out of A Marianne Moore Reader (1961)—Moore’s legions of revisions act to keep the work in flux):
you’ve seen a strawberry
        that’s had a struggle; yet
        was, where the segments met,

a hedgehog or a star-
        fish for the multitude
        of seeds. What better food

than apple-seeds—the fruit
        within the fruit—locked in
        like counter-curved twin

hazel-nuts? Frost that kills
        the little rubber-plant-
        leaves of kok-saghyz-stalks, can’t

harm the roots; they still grow
        in frozen ground. Once where
        there was a prickly-pear-

leaf clinging to barbed wire,
        a root shot down to grow
        in earth two feet below;

as carrots from mandrakes
        or a ram’s-horn root some-
        times. Victory won't come

to me unless I go
        to it; a grape-tendril
        ties a knot in knots till

knotted thirty times,—so
        the bound twig that’s under-
        gone and over-gone, can’t stir.

The weak overcomes its
        menace, the strong over-
        comes itself. What is there

like fortitude! What sap
        went through that little thread
        to make the cherry red!
Succeeding by intrepid meander and entrenchment to “lock in” a sense cornuous and unfurling simultaneously: the veriest vital sap exposing itself with a blush! Young calls Moore “our characteristic American poet . . . a true pioneer in a wilderness of thought” (“Out of the chaos of our fragmentary impressions interrupting each other, which is the first form of our experience, she traces an order determined in part by feeling, and in part by exigency”) and writes:
      In our age, as in perhaps every age since the invention of the printing press, there is a preponderant cult of mediocrity. Perhaps we can not get rid of it, but I object to its being labelled American. When a book is very, very dull or cheap—“This is good, old American” the advertising testimonials say. Considering that our most characteristic philosophers, poets, and fiction-writers have often explored the most exotic channels, I wonder why the dull should be called the good, old American way? America has been, if anything, the land of crazy unreason, where all kinds of people have done, as a matter of course, the most impossible things. So why should American literature be falsely described as something less experimental than America is? It seems unreasonable.
Greil Marcus’s “old, weird America” avant la lettre.Too, in Tambimuttu’s volume, of the woman who wrote somewhere (marvelously, and slyly) of writing that, “we would do well not to forget that it is an expedient for making oneself understood and that what is said should at least have the air of having meant something to the person who wrote it,” one finds the neglect’d American miniaturist and epigrammatist James Laughlin:
Pleasure Now

A Postcard (aside) to the Learned Fan & Philosopher of the Diamond who Once Confided Her Appreciation of Willie Mays’ “anticipatory thirst for the pitch”

gloomed Cohen as the
Yankees lost the 7th

game I can’t wait for
next year and then as

if to double his mis-
ery told me the sorry

tale of Ruskin burning
all of Turner’s nudes
A snapshot (or two) with no preamble, in medias res.

Marguerite Young, with compleat’d manuscript of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

Monday, January 18, 2010

Scrabbling in the Continuum

A Tree

A lovely remark (by William Carlos Williams): “I found I could not use the long line because of my nervous nature.” So (yesterday) dawdled back along the mostly two-lane Chicago Road, U. S. 12—eastern terminus downtown Detroit, western, Aberdeen, Washington—entering into its pact of examiner’s sobriety somewhere prior to the stretch of Indiana dunes. Major towns: White Pigeon, Sturgis, Coldwater. Camera out and numerous the calls to wheel the Vibe back around for the miss’d shot. Hit sundown with the Irish Hills, some smudge of unflagging optimism there in the seasonally shut down “attractions”—the Mystery Hill, the snow-hump’d wooly mammoth of the Prehistoric Forest, the thirty-foot chump-muscular Paul Bunyan, the Stagecoach Stop, &c. In a day of snow-cover’d landscapes and barns such preposterous beauty’d only’ve “pulled the pattern out of shape,” is what one had—like Dame Edith Sitwell—to remind oneself. I did note with regret how the two enormous early nineteenth century red-brick’d structures housing, the sign says, 102,000 books, wherein one day—coming back up out of South Bend—I found a copy of Marguerite Young’s Prismatic Ground (1937), had spanking new for sale signs attach’d, with a number direct’d at dealers (only).

Roundabout nod to my habitual Monday (and, of late, continuing) lack of preparedness, scrabbling about in the morning’s still gummy guano for a purchase. Here’s one: Coleridge (in the Notebooks) saying (or quoting Mrs. Barbauld referring to so-and-so—it’s unclear without checking the “companion” volume of notes—an unwieldy and untenable sitch unabidable): “An affectation of plainness and simplicity, with is the flimsiest covering for Incapacity that was ever assumed.” And hain’t I thunk that of a whole measley crop of terminal simplicitissimusses who’d make a virtue of a lack veering all across’t the spectrum: say Creeley to Merwin? Pathos of the plain turn’d to regular rot-gut vin ordinaire plonk? Coleridge (or Mrs. Barbauld) on “A School of Poetry” lacking “vigour of Expression” wherein “the regularities of Rhythm & Varieties of Cadence are disregarded [and] . . . all the Graces of Language . . . contemptuously banished”: “Disgusted probably that these Ornaments should have been distributed with an ill-judged Profusion, this School, in order to reform the Taste, and enamour it with the charms of Simplicity, not content with stripping Poetry of her superfluous Embellishments and arranging tastefully those which would really adorn her Person, and set off her Beauties, has absolutely deprived her of the common decencies of Dress. The Nymph is now always pouting, always melancholy, always discontented & fretful / she may well be ashamed of her Nakedness, for she really is not fit to be seen. In this School too she has been taught an abominable Lesson of Affectation / instead of those high-bounding Spirits, that animated Eye, that healthy, generous and open Countenance, on which every Passion, as it arose, was faithfully pourtrayed, the affected little Minx is always sighing & crying, her Eye is always downcast, her Look demure, & her Countenance deceitful.”

Marianne Moore (in “Edith Sitwell, Virtuoso”): “Sitwell is a virtuoso of rhythm and accent. She has given me immense pleasure, intensifying my interest in rhythm, and has also encouraged me in my rhythmic eccentricities. I can scarcely read the Bible without forsaking content for rhythm, as where the Apostle Paul speaks of the shipwreck on Malta and says, ‘when the ship could no longer bear up into the wind, we let her drive,’—a better rhythm than ‘and were driven,’” Moore: “‘I used to practice writing,’ Dame Edith says, ‘as a pianist practices music.’ She says that she would take a waltz or a polka or the music of the barrel organ beneath her window and translate it into words . . .” And Moore notes (what continues—recall Michael Cuddihy’s remark of years back that “to be call’d a virtuoso in music’s not a compliment”): “One cannot be a virtuoso without being combated,” though how wilily Moore combats that by leveraging up—apropos Sitwell, a newspaperman’s assessment: “One may judge the vitality of of an artist by the extent to which he is resisted”—and noting Sitwell’s report of “a mingling of bouquets and brickbats –with a strong predominance of brickbats.”

And the source of rhythmic virtuosity (amongst prehensile scads of other necessary combats of poesy’s direst insufficiencies—readers of only slim volumes of contemporary American verse, beware)? Prose. Donald Hall, asking if “any prose stylists” help’d determine Moore’s “poetic style” gets a reply “unexcell’d”:
Prose stylists, very much. Doctor Johnson on Richard Savage: “He was in two months illegitimated by the Parliament, and disowned by his mother, doomed to poverty and obscurity, and launched upon the oceans of life only that he might be swallowed by its quicksands, or dashed upon its rocks. . . . it was his peculiar happiness that he scarcely ever found a stranger whom he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added that, he had not often a friend long without obliging him to become a stranger.” Or Edmund Burke on the colonies: “You can shear a wolf; but will he comply?” Or Sir Thomas Browne: “States are not governed by Ergotisms.” He calls a bee, “that industrious flie,” and his home, his “hive.” His manner is a kind of erudition-proof sweetness. Or Sir Francis Bacon: “Civil war is like the heat of fever; a foreign war is like the heat of exercise.” Or Cellini: “I had by me a dog black as a mulberry . . . . I swelled up in my rage like an asp.” Or Caesar’s Commentaries, and Xenophon’s Cynegeticus: the gusto and interest in every detail! In Henry James it is the essays and letters especially that affect me. In Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance: his definiteness, his indigenously unmistakable accent. Charles Norman says in his biography, Ezra Pound, that Pound said to a poet: “nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, under stress of some emotion, actually say.” And Ezra said of Shakespeare and Dante: “Here we are with the masters; of neither can we say, ‘he is the greatest’; of each we must say, ‘he is unexcelled.’”

Edith Sitwell, 1887-1964

Friday, January 15, 2010

More Moore, &c.


Marianne Moore, in remarks (c. 1927) about William Carlos Williams’s receipt of The Dial Award, quoting Dr. Johnson about “the author of the Religio Medici” Sir Thomas Browne, who “has many verba ardentia, forcible expressions which he would never have found, but by venturing to the utmost verge of propriety; and flights which would never have been reached, but by one who had very little fear of the shame of falling.” And, later, reviewing Williams’s Collected Poems, 1921-1931: “Disliking the tawdriness of unnecessary explanation, the detracting compulsory connective, stock speech of any kind, he sets the words down, “each note secure in its own posture—singularly woven.” “The senseless unarrangement of wild things,” which he imitates makes some kinds of correct writing look rather foolish . . .” [Out of “Trees”: “how easily the long yellow notes / of poplars flow upward in a descending / scale, each note secure in its own posture . . .” And, out of “This Florida: 1924”: “The whole damned town // is riming up one street / and down another, yet there is / the rime of her white teeth // the rime of glasses / at my plate, the ripple rime / the rime her fingers make— // And we thought to escape rime / by imitation of the senseless / unarrangement of wild things— / the stupidest rime of all . . .”] Elsewhere Moore—hen-inveterate at the perfectly apt “picking and choosing”— quotes George Saintsbury talking about prose style: “With the imperiousness natural to all art, style absolutely refuses to avail itself of, or to be found in company with, anything that is ready made.” [Saintsbury continues: “The rule must be a leaden one, the mould made for the occasion, and broken after it has passed.”] “Picking and Choosing,” Moore’s own piece (1920), it, too, dogged by “the senseless unarrangement of wild things”: “Literature is a phase of life: if one is afraid of it, / the situation is irremediable; if one approaches it familiarly, / what one says of it is worthless.” She is talking about criticism, that “Small dog, going over the lawn, nipping the linen and saying / that you have a badger.” Or she is talking, too, about style: “remember Xenophon; / only the most rudimentary behavior is necessary to put us on the scent. / ‘A right good salvo of barks,’ a few strong wrinkles puckering the skin between the ears, is all we ask.”

That’s one trail, one attempt to map out a scurrility of connectedness, jocular and fraught. Coleridge says somewhere in the Notebooks how he “marked down . . . in some one of my pocket books, an Idea from Darwin, meant to prove the entire dependence of all Sublimity on Association.” Which is to say, if I read it—“Association”—“correctly,” language:
The sound of Thunder?—Sublime—No! it is a mistake—it is a cart over a hollow road, or going under an arch way.—Where is the Sublimity.—This fairly took me in, but now I see the fallacy. There is here no dependence—of Sublimity &c—but a true actual Substitution of the visual Image of a Cart and its low accompaniments and of the word Cart & its associations for the Sound first heard which was & always will be sublime if indeed it can be mistaken for Thunder. It is false that the Thunder clap depends for all its sublimity on our notion of the danger of Lightning & Thunder—with its height &c—These aid but do not constitute / for how divinely grand in beauty is the great Aurora Borealis / yet no one will pretend that its crackling, tho’ strange & impressive, is either sublime or grand or beautiful. But the fairest Proof a contra, & that which darted this Truth thro’ my mind was the Commodore’s Signal—which is truly sublime even as a Star is / so truly so, as long as I look at it or keep its Image before me, that even the word & visual Image Lanthorn & Candle only stands near it or under it, inert—Let that noise be produced by the Chariot Wheels of Salmoneus—So too recollect the Hawk’s flying all that cloudy day falling like a shooting Star thro’ a Jacob’s Ladder or slanting Column of Sunshine—I am much pleased with this Suggestion, as with everything that overthrows & or illustrates the overthrow of that all-annihilating system of explaining every thing wholly by association / either conjuring millions out of 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0 0—or into noughts.
Not exactly limpid. The language-jettisoning sublime is why the Wordsworthian “recollected in tranquility” is necessary, to recuperate the unrecuperable “spontaneous overflow.” Is why Coleridge’s own “secondary” imagination (“echo of the former . . . identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation”) ’s got to plea bargain for the utterly mute “primary.” Bah. I’d “intend’d” to begin collecting a string of Williamsesque “descents”—if only to bicker with myself about what that’d “mean.” I like the (triggering) one out of Kora in Hell:
Often when the descent seems well marked there will be a subtle ascent over-ruling it so that in the end when the degradation is fully anticipated the person will be found to have emerged upon a hilltop.
In middle life the mind passes to a variegated October. This is the time youth in its faulty aspirations has set for the achievement of great summits. But having attained the mountain top one is not snatched into a cloud but the descent proffers its blandishments quite as a matter of course. At this the fellow is cast into a great confusion and rather plaintively looks about to see if any has fared better than he.
And, certes, “The Descent”:
The descent beckons
                as the ascent beckoned.
                                Memory is a kind
of accomplishment,
                a sort of renewal
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
                inhabited by hordes
                                heretofore unrealized,
of new kinds—
                since their movements
                                are toward new objectives
(even though formerly they were abandoned).
Aimlessly sowing, or grafting, my hardly tutelary brouhaha.

Marianne Moore, 1887-1972
(Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Paul Merchant’s Some Business Of Affinity

Hanging Clothes

Coleridge, in the Notebooks:
      Wednesday Midnight, one o clock or near it—after much excitement, very very far short of intoxication, indeed not approaching to it to the consciousness of the understanding, tho’ I had taken a considerable Quantity of λαυδανυμ I for the first time in my Life felt my eyes near-sighted, & tho’ I had 2 Candles near me, reading in my bed, I was obliged to magnify the Letters by bringing the Book close to my Eye—I then put out the Candles, & closed my eyes—& instantly there appeared a spectrum, of a Pheasant’s Tail, that altered thro’ various degradations into round wrinkly shapes, as of [Horse] Excrement, or baked Apples—indeed exactly like the latter—round baked Apples, with exactly the same colour, the same circular intra-circular Wrinkles—I started out of bed, lit my Candles, & noted it down, in order to state these circular irregularly concentrical Wrinkles, something like Horse dung, still more like flat baked or [dried] Apples, such as they are brought in after Dinner.—Why those Concentric Wrinkles?
      I went to the window, to empty my Urine-pot, & wondered at the simple grandeur of the View / 1. darkness & only not utter black undistinguishableness—2. The grey-blue steely Glimmer of the Greta, & the Lake, 3. / The black, yet form preserving Mountains / 4 the Sky, moon-whitened there, cloud-blackened here—& yet with all its gloominess & sullenness forming a contrast with the simplicity of the Landscape beneath.
      Over the black form-retaining Mountains the Horizon of Sky grey-white all round the whole Turn of my Eye the Sky above chiefly dark, but not nearly so black as the space between my eye & the Lake, which is one formless Black, or as the black nothing-but form-& colour Mountains beyond the grey steely glimmery Lake & River / & this diminished Blackness mottled by the not-far-from-setting half-moon.—O that I could but explain these concentric Wrinkles in my Spectra!—

      Thursday, Nov. 24th, 1803.—Lo! On this day we change Houses!—All is in a bustle / and I do not greatly like Bustle; but it is not that that depresses me / it is the Change!—Change!—O Change doth trouble me with Pangs untold!—But change, and change! change about!—but they shall not get me out—from Thee, Dear Study!—I must write a Poem on this.—But this is not the only thing—it is Nov. 24th, 1803. Nov. 24th, 1799, it was a Sunday, & I was at Sockburn!— /

      Friday, Nov. 25, 1803.—Morning. 45 minutes past 2. after a night of storm & Rain, the Sky calm & whitely blue—vapours thinning into formlessness instead of Clouds / The Mountains of height covered with Snow, the secondary Mountains black. The Moon descending aslant the [a sketch’d slovenly V is here, with a tiny m (meaning “moon”?) at the top right “fork”], thro’ the midst of which the great road winds, set exactly behind Whinlatter Point, marked—. she being an egg, somewhat uncouthly shaped perhaps, but an ostrich’s egg rather than any other / she is two Nights more than a Half moon / —She set behind the black point—fitted itself on to it, like a Cap of Fire—then became a crescent / then a mountain of Fire in the Distance / then the Peak itself on fire—one steady flame—then starts of the first, second & third magnitude—& vanishing, up boiled a swell of Light—& in the next Second the whole Sky, which had been sable blue around the yellow moon, whitened & brightened, for as large a space as would take the Moon half an hour to descend thro’.
The veriest glut of metamorphoses. I reproduce it—beyond the certain and tangible pleasures of typing it—that materiality—largely in order to point to Paul Merchant’s piece call’d “The Low Voice of Quiet Change” in the excellent (and gorgeously design’d by Glenn Storhaug) Some Business of Affinity (Five Seasons Press, 2006). Merchant subtitles the thing “Recoveries from S T Coleridge / Bristol, London, Göttingen and Keswick / December 1797–November 1803” and remarks that “The current fragments are recovered from Notebook 21, in chronological order, adding nothing. I have made cuts, to reveal the poet on every page of the journal. Given his delight in experiments of all kinds, scientific, social and linguistic, it is possible that Coleridge would give an ironic welcome to these poems recovered from the great quarry of his private meditations.” Here, two parts—initial and final—of Merchant’s piece. The final part is drawn directly out of the November 1803 Coleridge entries:

Such light as Lovers love—
                              Moon behind Cloud
            Emerging to make the Blush visible
                                                                        the long Kiss kindled

All our notions
            husked in phantasms of Place & Time
                        still escape the finest sieve & Winnow of our Reason

Severity of Winter—the King’s-fisher
                                                                  slow short flight
                                                      observe all its colours
                                                                  almost as if a flower

            Poetry gives most pleasure
                                    when only generally
                                                      & not perfectly understood

. . .


I had taken a considerable Quantity of λαυδανυμ
                                                                                              closed my eyes

instantly appeared a spectrum, of a Pheasant’s Tail
          that altered
                                  into round wrinkly shapes like Horse dung
                          still more like baked Apples, brought in after Dinner

                went to the window to empty my Urine-pot
                                        grandeur of the View

1 darkness
        2 grey-blue steely Glimmer
                                        of the Greta, & the Lake
                3 The black
                                        form preserving Mountains
                                                                        4 the Sky
                                                                moon-whitened there
                                                                cloud-blackened here
                        the Horizon grey-white
        the space between my eye & the Lake
                                                        one formless Black

Moon descending
                                two Nights more than a Half moon
                                                        set behind the black point
fitted itself on to it, like a Cap of Fire—
              became a crescent /
                                then a mountain of Fire in the Distance /
then the Peak itself on fire—
                                      one steady flame—
                                                                        & vanishing
                                                                                up boiled
                                                                        a swell of Light—
Reminiscent of Ronald Johnson’s gleanings out of Thoreau (“Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils”), and Francis Kilvert’s Diaries—amongst many others—in The Book of the Green Man.

Paul Merchant’s Some Business Of Affinity
(The cover shows a detail of Dale Rawls’s collage “The Exiled Mandarin”)

Dale Rawls, “ca,” 2006

Dale Rawls, “s,” 2006

Dale Rawls, “Prayer Flag #0,” 2005

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Rapports de rapports . . .

Sign for Tobacco

Bah. Marianne Moore, to William Carlos Williams—January 26, 1934—on the receipt of Williams’s Collected Poems, 1921-1931 (The Objectivist Press, 1934):
Dear William,
      The catnip that art is, or ignis fatuus, or drop on the cactus, does seem worth the martyrdom of pursuit, I feel. If the value is valuable enough to one, one achieves it. So bless the collective wheelbarrow; with Wallace Stevens beside it like a Chinese beside a huge pair of oxen; also “Birds and Flowers”—the one instance, to my mind, of a love poem where the message would stand some chance of advancing the motive.
      “His writing has been about evenly divided between prose and verse.” I wish I had said it.
Referring to Wallace Stevens’s accompanying piece titled “Williams” (Premier paragraph: “The slightly tobaccoy odor of autumn is perceptible in these pages. Williams is past fifty.”) Some of it (after labeling Williams “a romantic poet,” and adding “This will horrify him”:
      The man has spent his life in rejecting the accepted sense of things. In that, most of all, his romantic temperament appears. But it is not enough merely to reject: what matters is the reason for rejection. The reason is that Williams has a romantic of his own. His strong spirit makes its own demands and delights to try its strength.
      . . . In order to understand Williams at all, it is necessary to say at once that he has a sentimental side. . . . Sentiment has such an abhorrent name that one hesitates. But if what vitalizes Williams has an abhorrent name, its obviously generative function in his case may help to change its reputation. What Williams gives, on the whole, is not sentiment but the reaction from sentiment, or, rather, a little sentiment, very little, together with acute reaction.
      His passion for the anti-poetic is a blood passion and not a passion of the inkpot. The anti-poetic is his spirit’s cure. He needs it as a naked man needs shelter or as an animal needs salt. To a man with a sentimental side the anti-poetic is that truth, that reality to which all of us are forever fleeing.
      The anti-poetic has many aspects. The aspect to which a poet is addicted is a test of his validity. Its merely rhetorical aspect is valueless. As an affectation it is a commonplace. As a scourge it has a little more meaning. But as a phase of a man’s spirit, as a source of salvation, now, in the midst of a baffled generation, as one looks out of the window at Rutherford or Passaic, or as one walks the streets of New York, the anti-poetic acquires an extraordinary potency, especially if one’s nature possesses that side so attractive to the Furies.
      Something of the unreal is necessary to fecundate the real; something of the sentimental is necessary to fecundate the anti-poetic. William, by nature, is more of a realist that is commonly true in the case of a poet. . . .
And how not apply Stevens’s remarks on “the anti-poetic” (“Its merely rhetorical aspect is valueless. As an affectation it is a commonplace.”)—to our own Flarf-gewgaw’d “era”? Everywhere that warning: against the mechanical, against mere “organization”—procedure only for its own loud presumptuousness, its noisy self-assertings. In Williams’s 1932 piece call’d “Marianne Moore,” he writes “Work such as Miss Moore’s holds its bloom today not by using slang, not by its moral abandon or puritanical steadfastness, but by the aesthetic pleasure engendered where pure craftsmanship joins hard surfaces skillfully.” And:
. . . to organize into a pattern is also, true enough, to “approach the conditions of a ritual.” But here I would again go slow. I see only escape from the conditions of ritual in Miss Moore’s work: a rush through wind if not toward some patent “end” at least away from pursuit, a pursuit perhaps by ritual. If from such a flight a ritual results it is more the care of those who follow than of the one who leads. “Ritual,” too often to suit my ear, connotes a stereotyped mode of procedure from which pleasure has passed, whereas the poetry to which my attention clings, if it ever knew those conditions, is distinguished only as it leaves them behind.
So one skirts (or gathers in one’s skirt) the old warnings, unblinking. Moore, herself, in “Feeling and Precision”—a piece capable of producing a nitrous oxide-fuel’d giddiness in me—says: “Fear of insufficiency is synonymous with insufficiency and fear of incorrectness makes for rigidity. Indeed, any concern about how well one’s work is going to be received seems to mildew effectiveness.” And “excess is the common substitute for energy.”

So saith the wraith, battling through a week of interrupt and (trop de) gab. (I managed, I swear, to thumb two pages of some old newspaper column about Foucault (“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face”) before dropping down into the Lethean sub-clarity of the “drop on the cactus,” that discourse vortex. In lieu of exposing the “rapports de force” (or the Marxist “rapports de production”)—the cagey-matrices of power relations—I found myself busy propping up a study of “rapports de rapports.” Carryings back. Carrying’s back. Bah.

William Carlos Williams reclining on the roof of Passaic Central Hospital, c. 1936
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)